- The league's top tier of teams looks awfully hard to beat. Is there a surprise contender lurking in the ranks that can sneak into the playoffs?
Heading into Monday's games, four teams had clinched playoff berths: the Predators, Lightning, Bruins and Jets.
Following a win against the Avalanche on Monday, the Vegas Golden Knights got in on the fun, making it a quintet of teams that represents the league's top tier. After that is a drop off, but it's only slight: Toronto, Washington, San Jose, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Anaheim and Colorado. With the next group of teams, starting with the red-hot Blue Jackets, it's hard to know if there is a true contender in there. Maybe there is, but more likely, you have a slew of squads battling to be probable first-round playoff exits.
Of course, in playoff hockey anything can happen, but it's awful hard to look past that top group, or even a couple of second-tier contenders.
Here's how we see teams stacking up in the NHL, from 31-1 (stats and records through Monday's games):
31. Buffalo Sabres
Last week: 31 (-)
Jack Eichel rushed himself back from an ankle injury... for this?
30. Arizona Coyotes
Last week: 30 (-)
It's been a much better second half for Arizona, mostly tied to the play of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta pushing one another for playing time.
29. Vancouver Canucks
Last week: 29 (-)
The win against Chicago broke a seven-game losing streak. Jacob Markstrom hasn't played terribly, but there's no offense scoring goals for him.
28. Ottawa Senators
Last week: 28 (-)
The Sens played Columbus tough, but then fell apart against Florida and Edmonton. Safe to say this hasn't been Craig Anderson's season.
27. Montreal Canadiens
Last week: 26 (-1)
Nice that Carey Price is back between the pipes, but there's nothing going on in front of him to make it worthwhile.
26. Detroit Red Wings
Last week: 27 (+1)
It's been a bad month to say the least. At least there was some fight against Maple Leafs.
25. Chicago Blackhawks
Last week: 24 (-1)
Giving up five goals to a Brock Boeser-less Canucks shows how much things have fallen off in the past year.
24. Edmonton Oilers
Last week: 25 (+1)
They're showing some scoring in recent games, but it's mostly Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl at this point.
23. New York Islanders
Last week: 23 (-)
The Isles have given up four-plus goals six times in 12 March games, and six or more goals four times in that span. Yikes.
22. New York Rangers
Last week: 22 (-)
They're currently competitive, but not enough, which is probably how next year go. Alexandar Georgiev looks to have found a role behind Henrik Lundqvist next season.
21. Carolina Hurricanes
Last week: 21 (-)
The Canes are still alive in the playoff race, but not really. The kids can score, just not enough to make up for the problems in the crease.
20. Calgary Flames
Last week: 19 (-1)
Mike Smith's return was supposed to save the Flames' season, but it doesn't look like anyone can keep the puck out of the Calgary net right now.
19. Florida Panthers
Last week: 17 (-2)
The loss to the Blue Jackets notwithstanding, things are still going well in Sunrise. Two big matchups coming up against the Maple Leafs and Bruins and the Panthers don't have much room for error.
18. New Jersey Devils
Last week: 16 (-1)
The trade deadline acquisitions are not working out and the Panthers are nipping at their heels.
17. Dallas Stars
Last week: 14 (-3)
Kari Lehtonen has won one game in March and lost a must-win against the Canucks. The Stars' season does not look like it will end well.
16. St. Louis Blues
Last week: 20 (+4)
It's nice to bee a bit of an uptick—ending the Blue Jackets' win streak was a morale booster. Having Jaden Schwartz (points in five straight games) back in the lineup helps, too.
15. Philadelphia Flyers
Last week: 18 (+3)
The goaltending still isn't where it needs to be. Alex Lyon has had a few strong starts but got overmatched against the Penguins in a Sunday matinee. The good news is that the offense is firing on all cylinders, with Claude Giroux racking up the points.
14. Colorado Avalanche
Last week: 11 (-3)
Still not a great defensive team, but is in line to make the playoffs. A nice shootout win over the Knights, which could have very well been a playoff preview.
13. Anaheim Ducks
Last week: 13 (-)
Goalie John Gibson has been on fire since mid-December, keeping the Ducks afloat while they healed up. He's stolen points in recent weeks, including a big one in an OT loss to the Jets.
12. Los Angeles Kings
Last week: 12 (-)
What a demolishing against they laid on Colorado. The Kings also played Winnipeg close on the road, too. Can they sneak their way in to the playoffs?
11. Minnesota Wild
Last week: 9 (-2)
The Wild have cooled off a bit, but are humming along in playoff position.The questions remains where they'll end up when the postseason starts, but having the Predators' number (3-1-0) could make for a fun matchup.
10. Pittsburgh Penguins
Last week: 7 (-3)
They've scuffled a bit with a few games against the lower rung, falling to the Devils in OT while needing the extra frame to top rival Philly. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are in playoff mode, which should scare everyone in the Metro Division.
9. Columbus Blue Jackets
Last week: 15 (+6)
Where did this come from? Absolutely elite play from Artemi Panarin, Seth Jones and Sergei Bobrovsky. Does anyone want to face them in the first round right now?
8. San Jose Sharks
Last week: 10 (+2)
One of the hotter teams in the league, the Sharks have rung up an eight-game win streak with Evander Kane (13 points in 13 games) looking good in teal. Meetings with Vegas, Nashville, Colorado and Minnesota to end the season will be telling.
7. Washington Capitals
Last week: 8 (+1)
All hail Philipp Grubauer! The Capitals' No. 2 goalie has excelled while spelling Braden Holtby, possibly cutting into the the top option's margin for error once the postseason hits.
6. Toronto Maple Leafs
Last week: 6 (-)
Auston Matthews is back in the lineup and all is good. Watch the Leafs really take off over the last few weeks of the regular season—they'll need to kick it into the highest gear possible with a matchup against the Lightning or Bruins looming in the first round.
5. Winnipeg Jets
Last week: 5(-)
The Jets dodged a bullet with sniper Patrik Laine's foot injury, but nice to see someone like Kyle Connor (who quietly has 50 points) step up in the meantime.
4. Vegas Golden Knights
Last week: 4 (-)
Marc-Andre Fleury didn't miss a beat (or his soap operas), which is a good sign for the playoff-bound team and the netminder. Malcolm Subban has looked strong between the pipes when the starter needs a breather.
3. Boston Bruins
Last week: 3 (-)
Ryan Donato provided a spark for the Bruins while a number of their big guns healed up. With Patrice Bergeron and Torey Krug back in the lineup and Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy on the way, things are looking really good over on Legends Way.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
Last week: 2 (-)
It's truly a coin flip among the top two teams, but Andrei Vasilevskiy needs a rest, and with the Bruins breathing down the Bolts' necks, that's a tough ask. The penalty kill—currently ranked 26th in the league—is in need of a fix before the postseason.
1. Nashville Predators
Last week: 1 (-)
Pekka Rinne is playing at a Vezina-caliber level behind one of the deepest lineups in all of hockey, and it could get even deeper if top prospect Eeli Tolvanen signs on.